Safe Production Leadership Competency Series: Drive Thinking and Speaking

Leadership competencies


By Kelly Hamilton, Madison Hanscom, & Josh Williams

A key responsibility of leaders is creating an environment where people can do their best work. To do this well, leaders must be able to drive thinking and speaking—in other words, to foster a climate in which people feel they can speak up without fear of negative consequences, known as psychological safety. Leaders drive thinking and speaking by creating an environment of psychological safety, getting employee input for safety solutions, encouraging system thinking, and reinforcing teamwork and collaboration. Leaders who effectively create this environment increase employee engagement and decrease the likelihood of serious injuries and fatalities.
This competency also involves inspiring employees to think creatively and empowering them to solve problems. Research suggests that when leaders inspire employees to think creatively and innovatively, this has a positive impact on safety climate, safety compliance, and safety participation.

Leaders can drive thinking and speaking in several ways:
Ask employees for feedback on safety systems, processes, and procedures. Research has found that asking employees for their input or ideas signals to them their voice matters and in turn leads them to generate more safety solutions.
Encourage innovative thinking and problem solving. When leaders inspire employees to think creatively and innovatively, this has a positive impact on safety climate, safety compliance, and safety participation.
Involve employees in safety discussions and decision making processes. Research has demonstrated that involving all employees in an environment where there are open discussions about safety issues and safety decisions (e.g., dangerous scenario reporting system, pre‐operation checklist cards, e‐learning forums) leads to significant improvements in safety performance.
Create an environment where employees feel safe to speak up without negative consequences. Research has found that about half (55%) of a company's ability to learn from failures can be explained by whether or not employees feel psychologically safe. Additionally, almost 10% of the variance in employee safety behaviors can be accounted for by the degree to which employees feel comfortable discussing safety issues at work.
Treat leadership as a process and not a person. It is a collective effort in which everyone is involved and brought into the inner circle. Research has found that when employees perceive high quality relationships with their leaders, it leads to fewer safety-related incidents and injuries.

Examples from the field:
• Effective mentoring between highly experienced and inexperienced employees is important to drive open thinking in speaking. This is especially true when companies have a large number of retiring employees who may or may not convey their detailed, craft knowledge to new employees. To formalize mentoring, an energy company implemented a “buddy for a week” system. Essentially, experienced employees (with high job knowledge and good attitudes for safety) spent one week with newer employees working together, eating together, and so on. This process improved rapport between newer and older employees and provided a great way for experienced employees to pass on specific craft knowledge in a direct, hands-on way. This also opened up new lines of communication and collaboration.
• Organizations should have an effective close call reporting program to drive thinking and speaking, promote a learning culture, and prevent future incidents. As an example, an employee at a local soft drink bottling company reported that a large stack of empty pallets nearly fell on him as he walked through the warehouse. The safety director assessed the situation and determined that all empty pallets needed to be stored in a covered outdoor area and set limits on how high pallets could be stacked. By filling out a near hit form, this employee helped ensure that he and other employees won’t be injured by falling pallets in the future. By encouraging near miss reporting and creating an environment where employees feel safe to speak up, the leader was able to drive learning from failures.

This post is part of a blog series on Propulo Safe Production Leadership Competencies. Read about the other competencies:
Actively Care
Walk the Talk
Build and Live the Vision
Recognize and Foster Growth

At Propulo, we work with leaders to develop micro-habits associated with effective leadership behaviors. We can help your company make safety “who we are” instead of “something we do.”